Saturday, January 29, 2011

Child welfare workforce turnover- what's the problem?

(c) creative commons brianhendrix

I have dedicated the last several years of my research career to studying the problem of child welfare workforce turnover.  High turnover of frontline child welfare workers is a national (and international) problem. The average stay of a child welfare worker in the US is about 2.5 years. So what's the problem?

1.  It takes workers time to learn system issues and effective practice.  Some research suggests it takes about 2 years.  If workers leave just as they are learning the job, they are taking what they've learned with them, and clients are often served by newer workers.

2. Turnover is expensive.  It can cost about $35,000-$50,000 in direct costs (training, advertising, recruitment, payout of earned time) each time a worker leaves.  This cost impacts the budget of agencies who could be spending the money for more direct services to families or perhaps even preventative services. If a small office loses 10 workers per year, this could be $500,000 in funds that are used to replace workers instead of serve children.

3.  Turnover is contagious.  When a worker leaves, it places a workload burden on other workers. Studies show that turnover and the associated poor morale can be contagious in agencies.

4. Turnover impacts the vulnerable clients that child welfare agencies serve.  Often children involved in child welfare have a history of unstable relationships, seperation, and loss, and worker turnover heightens this experience.  Children in care report that they have a harder time trusting social workers because of turnover, and even feel responsible for workers leaving the agency.

5. Turnover is linked to lengthened time to permanency.  When a new worker gets a case, she has to learn the history and about the family.  There may be gaps in services when workers change (before a new worker picks up the case).  This may mean that it takes more time before children are safely returned home or until they can be adopted.

 Although some research has focused on the qualities of an individual worker that might lead them to be more committed or the ways that agencies can train workers in efficiency, my research has focused on the things that child welfare organizations (often governmental agencies) can do differently to better retain workers.  Ultimately, changing organizations to better support workers will be more effective than changing individual workers to deal with dysfunctional organizations.  In a later post I will talk about some of the organizational predictors of turnover and the things agencies can do to support workforce stability, as well as the people and organizations working on solutions to this problem.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Should you get your MSW degree online?

If you are an online-ed skeptic, you're in good company according to this research report which indicates that over half of hiring executives polled viewed online grads less favorably. But let's face it, online degrees are not all created equal.  If you graduate from an MSW program, employers foremost want to know if it is CSWE accredited, and you want to make sure you're learning the core skills of the profession.  If you are on the market for a social work degree, it's important to know what you are looking for.

A growing pool of research suggests that a person can learn as well online as in the classroom.  I had the privilege of visiting University of North Dakota recently; they've been doing online-distance ed in social work longer than anyone. They offer synchronous classes, which means that students log in at particular times and interface with their teachers and classmates directly via webcam, very much like if they were sitting in the classroom.  The faculty that teach these classes are the same faculty that teach in the on-campus program. Admission to the program is selective, but they offer some priority to geographic isolation- which means they can contribute to social justice by helping educate place-bound students in communities where social work ed may not otherwise be available.  Their cutting-edge online software allows the class to be divided in to small groups with their online classmates to discuss issues via webcam (just like in a classroom), and for students to meet individually by webcam and record mock interviews for faculty review, and even for students to raise a virtual hand and be called on in class.  Students meet on campus for several intensive days of study and orientation every year.  Faculty members fly all over the United States to visit students in their communities  at their field placements, in person-  in more than 30 states.  AND the online program costs the same for residents and non-residents, making it a more financially accessible option than many private schools.  The faculty was really warm, and overall a group with rich practice and research experience.  These are some of the characteristics that suggest a lot of thought has gone in to online program delivery that meets the needs of the students and provides quality content.

There are several other programs offering social work education online.  Some online schools require some period of residency or require that you live within the state. An online degree takes a similar amount of time and devotion as an in-person program. If you are considering online social work education, you should ask:
  1. Is the program accredited by CSWE? (Most employers only recognize CSWE accredited programs.) 
  2. Are classes synchronous (at a certain time) or asynchronous (log in at your convenience)?
  3. How are field placements arranged?
  4. Does the program have a specialization? What are they known for? (macro practice? clinical? rural?)
  5. How does a student practice social work skills like interviewing and engagement? What does class participation look like?
  6. Do tenure-track faculty teach in the program, or all the instructors mostly adjuncts?  Are they conducting research and providing service in their fields? 
  7. How do students access the faculty for advising and questions?
  8. Is there an in-person requirement? If so, what are the associated expenses? (air travel, hotel, etc.)
  9. What is the selection criteria and the retention (how many students drop out?)
  10. How many students are in the program? How do you work with other students?
  11. How expensive is the program?
  12. How are disruptions handled (if you have to drop a class, etc)?
You must also do some self reflection.  Can you dedicate time and attention to online study, and eventually do a time-intensive field placement in the community? Students are typically asked to work full days either 2 days a week over a year or 4 days a week over a semester. These placements are typically unpaid.  What are your experiences with online learning?  What kinds of supports will you need to be successful?

An application for an online grad program should be taken as seriously as an application to a site-based program. Although it comes with some conveniences, it has a unique set of challenges as well.  Look at what other online learners have said to evaluate whether this might be a good match for you.  If you've been an online learner, let me know what you think.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

In the news: Skype Counseling with homebound elderly

I was excited to see this article in the news today about a research project that offers laptops to elderly people at risk for depression, where they have access to therapy via Skype. Social Work researchers at the University of Texas-Austin have brought laptops to the homes of seniors over 60 who are socially isolated.  This project offers an opportunity for evidence in how to support people who may be hard to reach because of isolation or illness.

I am lukewarm, generally, on the issue of internet-based therapy.  Many licensed (and unlicensed) therapists are offering counseling services via webcam, email, and even in Second Life.  Many have ethical practices, waivers,* see only those who are not in acute crises, and are well-educated in issues related to counseling via distance.  This may be a responsive option for people with social anxiety/agoraphobia, who are geographically isolated, or have a specialized need that might be more available when they have a wider variety of therapists from which to choose. Our professional organizations are still overly-vague on the issue of internet-based services, although many good articles have been written on the topic.

The difference between this research project and online therapy is that (I assume) there has been an in-person assessment for appropriateness of fit, and the workers are still in the community should an acute need arise.  My view is that we need more professional clarity and regulation about social work via distance before it can be a broad credible option, or some professional education for consumers about what to look for in an online counselor.  What do you think?

*I do not know or endorse this Licensed Clinical Social Worker, but saw she offered a more thorough list of the risks of online therapy than many social workers offering e-counseling.

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